I have been thinking and praying lately about the role of the church, and particularly of St. Luke’s church, in our current American cultural and political conversation. I have received more emails from members and constituents about current events over the last few months than in all my ministry. I have listened to many sermons, studied the Scripture, read the writings of many Christian leaders, both past and current, and then I have prayed some more. I am particularly indebted to the writings of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and to Dr. John Ortberg of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, to help me crystalize my thoughts. There is still much that remains unsolved in my mind and heart, but I have heard from so many grappling with these issues too. So rather than avoid the discussion, I share these thoughts with prayer and humility, hoping perhaps we can begin the conversation with these ponderings.
1) Remember there is a difference between purpose and policy. The former is a primary function of the church; the latter is secondary. Christians are called as much as possible to be involved in public policy conversation, to be salt and light to transform the world rather than withdraw from it. But while we can call for full alignment about the purpose, Christians can disagree about the ways our values should impact the policies which come to pass. Three examples:
- Every follower of Jesus will be concerned about the poor. Part of our purpose is to care for those who are the most vulnerable. It is not an option for a Christian to turn a blind eye to the poor, or to be only concerned with one’s own economic or social advantage. However, authentic, committed Christians can disagree on policy – about what decisions will best lift the poor and empower them.
- All Christians are called to be concerned with the plight of refugees. The Bible is clear from the beginning to the end that we are to welcome the stranger. The children of Israel were once wandering strangers and Jesus himself was a refugee in Egypt. It is not consistent with the Christian message to only care about ourselves, or to make distinctions in our love and acceptance because of race or nationality or creed. This is a Biblical mandate, and expressing it is part of our purpose in being the light of the world. But Christians can disagree on what policy is best to welcome refugees and immigrants and still be able to appropriately care for and integrate them into our culture and draw them into strong communities. And Christians can disagree on the level of safety required to make sure that the communities into which we welcome them are safe for all.
- It is the purpose of the church to “do the things that make for peace” and to be “peacemakers.” But Christians can disagree on whether a strong military is best to ensure peace, or whether we are best to stay out of conflicts around the world.
While I might have my own studied opinions about policy, I don’t feel I have the expertise, knowledge or authority to speak into what is the best specific policy. It is always too easy to look for simple solutions to very complex problems because they seem easiest to grasp. In our discourse as Christians, we must be careful not to assume that those who disagree with us about policy are really misguided about purpose. Similarly, we must be clear about the Biblical teachings regarding how Christians are to live, what our witness is, and not shirk from or be apologetic about calling one another to live those teachings. I confess my own shortcomings in this area. Most importantly, each one of us must take a long and honest look at our own motivations for advocating for specific policies, to ensure that they are consistent with our purpose as those who embody God’s love in the world. We cannot use the distinction between policy and purpose and our openness to various perspectives to justify support of policies which run counter to our purpose and the Biblical witness. Moreover, we must be clear not to co-opt those purposes simply to advocate for the policy of our favorite party. The purpose must drive the policy, rather than the policy looking for a Christian purpose and teaching to give it support.
2) The church must always keep her focus on people rather than issues, and actions rather than words. As I have read through the gospels for our Scripture + Shared Bible Study, I have been amazed once again at how Jesus dealt with individuals one at a time – he heard the single voice crying from the crowd and stopped and helped. Issues are easy to discuss, and it is always tempting to jump on the issue bandwagon with our friends. But issues themselves have no faces, no souls, no children, no hunger, no fear, no longing, no dreams. Yes, the issues of our day affect people, so of course they matter. But I have found that when I am looking into the face of a human being, I discover a clarity that I must DO something to show that person God’s love. I must keep that face in my mind as I make my own decisions about what policies I will support as an individual American Christian. And while there is a time and a place for words and protest, God always calls us to DO something for someone. And part of that doing involves a deep commitment to pray for the people most affected by our sinful and broken world.
3) St. Luke’s job is to bring people with differing views together to do good things. One of the greatest problems our country faces right now is division. We have become increasingly polarized and increasingly tribal. In fact, many churches are becoming tribal as well, with people gathering on Sunday morning to hear opinions that only agree with their own. Just before Christmas, E.W. Mike Kelley passed away. He had been a great layman and leader at St. Luke’s until he was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board and moved to Washington D.C. in 1987. In speaking with people about Mike’s leadership, they said “Mike was so good at bringing together people with different views to do good things.” It struck me that such a charge is what we seek to do here at St. Luke’s, and is so much a part of our identity. We are not a tribal church, but we come together for God’s purposes. We have a big tent here. Yes, sometimes we grate on one another – that is the way it is with human beings together. But it is worth it to build the bridges we need to build.
4) Arrogance is dangerous. When I hear someone speak that she or he has all the answers, or who doesn’t seem to want to listen to anyone who disagrees, or who disparages those who have differing opinions, or who sits in a small group assuming everyone there must agree with her or him, I see very little that is consistent with Holy Scripture in their attitude. The twin brother of arrogance is self-righteousness. It makes no sense for you or for me to be the publican in the temple who says “thank God I am not arrogant like he is.” I hope God will speak to all of our hearts, and remind us of the importance of humility and listening to one another.
5) Finally, we must be careful not to succumb to the temptation to believe that politics and power are the foundational answer to the world’s problems. That was temptation Satan offered to Jesus: “You can have all the kingdoms of the world if you will just worship me.” Jesus refused. He knew that the power he claimed was a different kind of power, and that the kingdom he was building was a different kind of kingdom. I have shared with you before my own conviction that the most significant way to change the world is to be a part of Jesus’ work to change the hearts of ALL human beings, inviting them into a transforming relationship with Christ. That will come only by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within each one of us, as we strive to be one family in Jesus, putting our faith to work in love. In our current culture and time, that work of drawing people to Jesus seems more important than ever. Let’s do it together.
Tom Pace, February 22, 2017
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